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Spotlight Report

  Scot Lehigh  

Can next pope heal the church?

4/12/2002

HANS KUNG, the great Catholic philosopher, author, and dissident, still remembers speaking at Boston College in March 1963. It was during the heady days of Vatican II, and the reception was enthusiastic as the young theologian, who served as a Vatican-appointed expert at the council, urged a spirit of openness and intellectual freedom in the church.

A standing ovation followed - ''Anyone passing Roberts Center would have thought Boston College had just trounced Holy Cross at basketball,'' one scribe reported - as well as a visit to the White House, where he met John F. Kennedy, the country's Catholic president.

''How proud we were to be Catholics in those days,'' declares Kung, reached Wednesday at his home in Tubingen, Germany. Almost 40 years later, Kung is saddened beyond words by the growing scandal besetting the church he has loved, battled with, and tried to liberalize for most of his professional life. ''To read, after 40 years, of this decline, I can't express my personal feelings,'' he says.

Back in January, when the Globe began chronicling the derelictions of the Boston archdiocese in dealing with pedophile priest John Geoghan, it would have been impossible to guess that the scandal would grow to shake the very walls of the Vatican. And yet three months into a story that has spread like a fission reaction, it's become obvious the Catholic Church now confronts a crisis the likes of which it has seldom seen since the Protestant Reformation.

What, then, will happen to the church as it deals with a laity further alienated by each new story of priestly abuse and archdiocesan indifference, evasion, or secrecy?

After all, the force of coercion is centuries gone, and religious fear as a motivating force had its last gasp with the century just passed. That leaves only lingering loyalty and the power of persuasion to bind the faithful, but a church that has betrayed its children can expect to benefit little from either.

It's equally obvious that healing the church defies the abilities of either the aged and infirm pope or a thoroughly discredited Boston cardinal. Even in the prime of life, it's dubious John Paul II could have restored his church. Although he has proved adept at reconciling the Catholic Church with other faiths and peoples, he has never succeeded in reconciling his own faithful to church teachings.

But John Paul II is surely very near the end of his papacy. It's in the choosing of a new pope, Kung thinks, that the church will have a chance to make things right.

''My great hope is that the cardinals would elect a man who will go back to the good line of Vatican II and go on with the renewal,'' he says. In Kung's view, several changes are essential. One is making celibacy optional for priests; another is allowing the ordination of women. Easing the celibacy requirement was an issue as long ago as the Council of Trent (1545-63). Four hundred years later, during Vatican II, Rome still refused to budge.

''I think we would have had a majority in the council if the curia would have allowed us to have a discussion on celibacy law, but it was forbidden to talk about it,'' Kung says. ''If celibacy was optional, then we would have a very different situation. But the law of celibacy became practically the only criteria, not whether a young man would be a good minister to the people.''

The church also faces a grave problem of governing structure, Kung says.

Rather than letting the single person of the pope be the supreme authority on church doctrine, Vatican II reformers hoped for a ''a representation of bishops that would come together regularly like a parliament and would decide, with the pope, the major issues.'' Such a system of shared authority would render the church more able to change and adapt. Instead, Rome has remained supreme.

Far-sighted Catholics should share Kung's hope that this scandal will finally spark long overdue reforms, because if action isn't initiated by the clergy, a reaction will be by the laity: Not institutional reform but individual exodus. There would be no nailing of theses to the church door, or even posting of remonstrances on a Catholic Web site.

Instead, in the face of an unyielding church, frustrated, distrusting Catholics will simply leave a church that refuses to change in meaningful ways in favor of faiths that have.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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